I’ve been living my life moving between the studio and the kitchen. From holding a brush to holding a spatula. From mixing paint to stirring soups. From doing something leisurely to doing something essential as feeding myself. I get outside and walk for at least an hour every day, no matter what the weather is like. I often walk into the gourmet shop on my way home and pick up a jar of something like almond butter. Charlotte is coming for dinner so I stop by the fishmonger. I miss the ocean, and lately my taste for salt has amplified. I have the fishes’ heads cut off even though he warns me they contain the most flavour while he beheads them, a look of disapproval and dismay overcoming his face. At home I rinse the empty bellies clean and pat the fishes dry using a towel. They lay there, so empty and helpless it’s pathetic. I grab my coat and head out again to get some lemons I forgot. Outside it continues to snow. The city has fallen still. I think, this must be what it feels like to walk through a Pavlova, or something with egg whites.
At home I put on an Alan Vega record and immediately feel like dancing. I feel wild. As I season the dead fish, I try imagining again what it’s like to be like Charlotte. I try speaking her words using her articulate tone and owning her mind. Would I be more at ease with myself if I always pretended to be someone else? I wish I were more strategic and had planned out my next five years like she has. I wish I were more of a writer. I wish I had studied law, for some reason. It’s odd pretending to have a law degree while listening to Alan Vega; it feels wrong.
I enjoy observing how Charlotte moves. She is slender with short hair and is wearing a blue turtleneck, her lips painted a cadmium red. Her bony hands pass me a bottle of wine.
“I brought you some lemons too” she says, in that voice I like so much. “I just remembered you forgot them last time”.
She hangs up her coat. I take the bag of lemons and place them with the other seven I just bought. I grab two glasses and she pours us wine. We nibble on some grilled scallops wrapped in prosciutto, which she says are delicious, lifting my mood instantly. I am surprised by how desperate I am to be acknowledged by her; it’s exhausting. I wonder if she can smell my desperation. I have been jealous of her successes and her stories since we met. In the same way she inspires me, she also drags me down. When we were roommates, her publishers regularly paid for her trips to the Maldives so she could complete the final stages of her book. She never did finish the book, but I still remember having to hide the envy on my face every time I helped her pack. She is so ungrateful for having thrown that away like that. She never told me why she didn’t finish her book. She tells me she just needed a change but I don’t believe her. There are parts of her I want to see but she will never show me. I remember we got into an argument once and she left our conversation unfinished to smoke. I remember looking at her standing out on the balcony, her coat billowing around her tiny body, neurotically dragging on her cigarette. I thought she might jump and kill herself and it felt liberating. But she just needed a break from me and I watched her looking over the city. I feel sick to my stomach when I think about the desire of wanting her to die.
We meet for dinner every Monday night and lately I’ve come to hate it. I feel more tense around her than usual and she keeps talking about her editor Brenda, as if she’s a genius. In general she doesn’t speak a lot, but tonight she doesn’t even look at me. Is it my dress? Is it the colour of my socks, or just that I’m wearing socks with a dress? I can’t stop wondering what she is disapproving me of. She rubs her fragile neck I would like to break right now and closes her eyes.
“I’m tired from work, forgive me.” Her perfection and boredom annoy me more than usual tonight. It’s everything I ever wanted, to be a staff writer at the Times and afford Chanel lipsticks. How could it make her tired? To this day, I feel I have to earn her interest. It’s hard work captivating Charlotte, unless you’re Brenda or that pretentious ‘friend’ of hers Margaret.
I lay out the grilled sardines with lemons, crushed garlic, rock salt, crusty bread and butter. And more wine. This is something I am good at, cooking. It’s something that’s mine. When I cook I don’t feel like I’m imitating someone. The food looks beautiful and she must be impressed, but her face doesn’t reveal much. I take out photos from my summer in Florence to impress her. I point out the prestigious school where I lie and say that I taught painting. I show her photo’s of the salty seas I’d swim in after class. She looks at them with intent while sipping her wine and dipping her bread in leftovers. She seems to be genuinely interested, looking less bored. All I can think is how happy I was being away from her and how I need to go back this summer. It feels empowering not to feel bad about my income, low ambition and canvas totes.
“I’ve never seen you so happy.” What a nasty remark. She sure would have liked it if I stayed there, far away from her and her snobby friends at the Times with their leather purses. She once introduced me to them as an ‘old friend’ while pushing my canvas tote behind my jacket.
“I think I should move there, don’t you?” I’m looking for a reaction, but she just nods.
By the end of the night we are in the living room listening to Yoko Ono records while the fish carcasses are resting on the plates. She seems unusually distant tonight. I am scared and my need for her approval is becoming noticeable. I need to be more cautious. By now I am used to not knowing what she thinks, so I don’t bother asking her. I put on the kettle for tea while she smokes out on the balcony. Her magenta purse is just sitting there. I like going through her stuff when she isn’t looking. Hoping to find out something about her, I look through her purse but find the lipstick instead, Tom Ford in Cherry Lush, way more expensive than Chanel. I tuck it away in my pocket and think about Yoko Ono and what it would be like to have her over for dinner instead. I would cook spinach balanzoni with brown butter and sage served on black stone plates. I would keep the meal simple but add some humour and complexity to the dessert: a baked Alaska Flambé comes to mind. We would gossip about Klaus Biesenbach and analyze TOILET PIECE together. She would be mesmerized by my paintings. It would be an inspiring friendship, one where we wouldn’t need to be like the other to match. Before I can put together an imaginary menu for an imaginary night with an imaginary friend, she comes back from her smoke. She smiles but I know she’s moody. I want her out of my apartment but instead I offer her tea. For the next 15 minutes I read her a passage from ‘Summer of Hate’. When I look up she seems to be crying. My hands shake as I rub her bony back.
“What happened?” I feel a hot rush flushing through my body. I am so angry with her for everything. This should be the end of our friendship and I will feel free to move on without her approval.
She sort of smiles at me and puts on her boots and grabs her bag “Nothing! I’m just exhausted.”
I smile back and say “See you next Monday?” Which we both know is a lie. She leaves and I start washing the dishes while I weep until I turn into a prune. I cry all night and watch myself in the mirror. I need another face to understand my sorrows. When she said she was exhausted surely she was talking about me, how exhausting it is to be around me. I wish for misery and loneliness to kill her in her sleep tonight.
I wake up at 5:30 and start my morning with a walk along the water, disconnecting from last night. On my way home I pick up a coffee and a little pastry. My apartment looks out over the bridge, giving me a sense of freedom and escape. On the table, I notice she left a collection of old Saveur magazines. Something in my body moves, like I could become her some day. I decide on a navy-blue turtleneck and the Cherry Lush I stole and feel instantly closer to her. In some ways we actually look similar. I grab the scissors and ruthlessly cut off my ponytail.
The old floors in my apartment squeak, my desk is an antique mahogany. It belonged to Charlotte’s grandmother, a poet with a disregard for journalism. She left it in her room when she moved, saying she wanted me to have it as a reminder to keep writing. But I know it’s because she wanted to leave us both behind. I’m not a writer; I’m a reader, a painter, a cook! It takes me months before stories start to make sense. I take some photos of the desk so I can sell it on Craigslist later. I strip the sheets of the bed, and start scrubbing the walls. I feel like I’m being washed. I catch a glimpse of myself and the desk in the mirror, and feel detached from what I see.
Everything in this city is so overwhelming I can’t focus on who I am or who I want to be. I haven’t spoken to Charlotte in seven weeks. I never wanted to stop missing her but eventually, I think I did. Now, I wear her lipstick and have a pixie cut. Sometimes when I look in the mirror I see her and I think of the word “elegance”, but it’s only my face that’s elegant now. I wouldn’t say that I am experiencing being an elegant person yet.
Someone gave me the opportunity to write a catalogue for their gallery. It’s something new and in the direction I want to go in. I go in every morning and I spend the first ten minutes standing around the coffee maker with three other girls. One of them stands out to me, she isn’t tall but her legs are like stilts. She tells me her name is Delia, she moved here from Sydney and doesn’t know many people. We share a pizza over lunch and she mentions how much she likes my lipstick, my purse, and the material of my sweater. Delia makes me feel good about who I could be. I impress her with borrowed stories that aren’t mine to tell, about the experience of being a writer. Back in the office I sometimes pretend to talk on the phone knowing the other girls can hear me. I want to advertise to them how I have a social yet responsible life with other projects going on.
On my way to the subway I see the same woman everyday, my age, sitting on the corner of 34th and 6th with a sign that says: “Too ugly to prostitute”. It makes my stomach turn each time and I’m angry at her for injecting herself into my life in that way. I take an extra seven minutes to walk to another station just to avoid seeing her again. On the metro, I doze off and start forming shapes in the darkness.
It’s Monday night and I’m eating alone. Enough time has passed to look at Charlottes pictures online, without crying or wanting to die. She is growing out her hair and has changed the colour of her lips, a deep orange colour I envy. She looks happy and I feel nauseous looking at her life, thinking how I was never a part of it the way Brenda and Margaret are. I try thinking about Delia instead and how she looks up to me the way Charlotte once did. Somehow she became stronger and I became weaker. I try to fool myself thinking how my new gig at the gallery could lead to being a staff writer at the Times one day. I sit at the desk I never sold on Craigslist, and think if only she could see how interesting I have become. I pick up the phone and call her, but she doesn’t answer. I call again and leave her a short message managing to tell her about my new gig. She never calls me back.
As I separate from one friend I become closer to another. Delia and I spend a lot of time together. We go shopping for leather purses and celebrate by setting our canvas totes on fire and drinking whiskey sours. Delia is witty, curious and thinks I am genius. She cut her hair to match mine, while I started growing mine out to match Charlotte’s. Delia isn’t as pretty as Charlotte, but she is funnier and nicer. She proudly introduces me to her roommates as her ‘very talented’ friend and it quickly becomes apparent I am supposed to be the better one. There isn’t much about Delia that I aspire to be. I am usually the one introducing her to new things, places and people. She wears Cherry Lush all the time now. She asks people intimate questions and is sure to make eye contact. Her moves are slow and her voice is calm. She’s always interested in everyone she meets; it disgusts me.
I want to go home and hide myself. I know she saw me at the hotel, vacuuming. Why was I vacuuming? No one will see me if I go home. Pull yourself together. Go home.
Delia comes over for no reason.
“She’s not even your friend, why do you care?” she says when I tell her. She just can’t understand, she is young and naive. She doesn’t know what it’s like to have found yourself in someone else, and they go around flaunting being you, while you’re vacuuming to save up cash for another residency. It should be the other way around. I should be going into the restaurant with the editorial staff while she sucks up dirt and germs from carpets.
“I’m too old to be working in a hotel!” I snap at Delia and spill sauce on my blouse. I will write about this experience, I think as I weep.
I sit by the window facing the door. I sip my coffee and stain the cup with my new deep orange lipstick. Summer has reached itself into October and I am wearing a linen dress. My hair has grown shoulder length and I have coloured it dark brown. I’m pretending to read Saveur magazine. I’ve ripped out Charlotte’s articles to steal for my writer’s portfolio. I’ve decided I want to be a food writer. I am feeling uncomfortable. I feel the man in front of me looking at me, but when I look at him he’s not even facing in my direction. Is it apparent when I sip my coffee that I’m trying to be a food writer but aren’t?
Charlotte finally comes in, with Brenda and a girl I’ve never seen before. I hide behind Saveur magazine but still hope she will notice me. They are caught up in each other’s stories and don’t look my way. I try to hear what they’re saying. She really articulates her words, something I would practice while cooking for her. She’s wearing glasses, her lips that same deep orange I tried to find. She wears a sailor dress in blue stripes I’ve never seen before. I want to walk up to her, the new me, and tell her about my gig at the gallery and explain why I was vacuuming at the hotel. How it was only to help out a friend, even though really it was because I needed the money to go on that residency in Florence. I listen to them talk about art and theatre, I hear them use words like ‘emergent’, ‘astonishing’, ‘epochal’, and ‘divine.’
“Ugh…That play was so utterly blasé.” Her dress brushes against my shoulder as she passes me like I’ve never existed. I catch a glimpse of the label on her dress from the corner of my eye: J.Crew. I feel lonely and gross. How can she still make me feel so bad? I want to scrub my hands, feet and face and go to bed.
The harsh sun shines into my eyes, blinding me from my problems. I wish I could run away from it all and start again, but instead I walk into J.Crew.
GHAZALEH ABASSALIAN was born in Tehran and raised in Amsterdam. Currently based in Montreal, she is a visual artist and writer. She holds a BFA from the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam, and explores voice, words, tone, as well as the rhythms of language. Her writing examines human relationships, both good and bad.
Copyright © 2018 by Ghazaleh Abassalian. All rights reserved.